Dohnanyi leads BSO in Schoenberg’s work of brevity

By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / August 20, 2011

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LENOX - This season at Tanglewood has brought its fair share of grand musical gestures, with Berlioz’s Requiem and the vast symphonies of Mahler thundering from the stage of the Koussevitzky Music Shed. By the year 1905, Arnold Schoenberg was tired of music of this scale. Not listening to it, he once recalled, but writing it, or at least of being a composer who accepted this as his inheritance and mandate.

When Schoenberg sat down to pen his First Chamber Symphony that year, he had in mind a new goal of “concision and brevity,’’ music devoid of any padding, in which every note had a functional purpose. It sometimes feels as if he has taken the saturated late Romantic creations of Mahler and Strauss, put them in a large pot, set the burner on low, and left for a long walk in the Bavarian countryside.

The Chamber Symphony No. 1, finished in 1906, has the resulting feel of concentrated urgency and boiled-down expression, qualities that came across in last night’s performance by a small delegation from the Boston Symphony Orchestra led by Christoph von Dohnanyi.

There were balance issues, with strings lines too often covered, and a sense that the music wanted a smaller space in which one could experience its intensity, but overall Dohnanyi’s gambit was a welcome change of pace, opening with music of heated intellectuality that still aims for the gut. One can hear tonality’s grasp weakening, but this is still in a way a conservative work, dreaming of new directions while planted in a gemutlich world of music’s past.

After the Schoenberg came Schumann’s Piano Concerto, with the young German pianist Martin Helmchen as the soloist. His playing was consistently refined and delicately phrased, with a Mozartean lightness to some of his passagework. A few of his willowy effusions might have been more effective if they had been set off by playing, of a bolder profile, but there was no doubting the elegance and subtlety of his technique.

Dohnanyi and the orchestra closed up the night with a focused and forceful account of Beethoven’s “Eroica’’ Symphony. Dohnanyi’s grasp of this score is masterful, and the details, pacing, and dynamics all fell into place. The second movement’s funeral march was particularly arresting, played with a freshness of conception as if nothing could be taken for granted. And it was good to be reminded by the applause after the first movement: For some in the audience, this really was a premiere.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at

BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA Christoph von Dohnanyi, conductor

At: Tanglewood (last night)